The Pawnee Morning Star Ceremony

Human sacrifice is generally defined as the ritual killing of a human being as a part of a religious ritual. While human sacrifice was an important part of the ceremonial practices of the Indian nations of Mesoamerica (such as the Aztec and Maya), it was uncommon among the American Indian people of North America. One of the few groups who incorporated human sacrifice into their ceremonies was the Pawnee.

At the time of the European invasion of the Great Plains, the Pawnee were an agricultural people raising corn along the rivers of the Central Plains in what would later become Nebraska. They also engaged in seasonal buffalo hunts, particularly after they obtained the horse. They had a sophisticated understanding of the movement of the stars and celestial observation was important in determining the cultivation cycle of their corn. The Pawnee lifestyle was centered on the astronomical observation. The movements of the stars formed the basis for their seasonal rituals.

In each Pawnee village there was an elite group composed of a hereditary chief, sub-chiefs, religious leaders, and leading warriors which discussed tribal matters such as the timing of ceremonies, assignments of farming plots to families, warfare, and foreign relations.

The Pawnee lived in permanent earth lodges which were constructed so that the four central posts represented the four cardinal directions. The east-facing doorway would have an unobstructed view of the eastern sky and at the vernal equinox the first rays of the sun would strike the altar within the lodge.

One of the important Pawnee ceremonies, the Morning Star Ceremony, involved the sacrifice of a young woman. As a part of the ceremony, a captive woman would be tied spread-eagled to a wooden frame and every man and boy in the camp would shoot an arrow into her body. The young woman represented Evening Star and with her death, her soul went to her husband Morning Star who then clothed her with the colors of the dawn. The reunion of Morning Star and Evening Star meant the renewal of growing things on earth. The Morning Star Ceremony was a fertility rite, and from the Pawnee perspective, the young woman was not a victim, but a messenger.

The Morning Star Ceremony was not conducted on a regular schedule. Rather, it was conducted in response to a vision by a warrior. In this vision Morning Star would appear as a man anointed with red paint with leggings decorated with scalps and eagle feathers. In the dream, Morning Star would tell the warrior:

“I am the man who has power in the east. I am the Great Star (Upirikutsu). You people have forgotten about me. I am watching over your people. Go to the man who knows the ceremony and let him know. He will tell you what to do.”

Following the vision, the warrior would consult with the Morning Star shaman (priest, in some accounts). The warrior and the elder would then determine if Morning Star in the vision was asked for the regular symbolic ceremony or the full ceremony which included the human sacrifice. The elders would consult with the stars: the full ceremony was performed only in years when Mars was the morning star.

If it was decided that the full ceremony was needed, then the warrior would be instructed to obtain a suitable captive from another tribe. From the keeper of the Morning Star bundle, the warrior would receive a special warrior’s outfit. The warrior would then recruit some volunteers and set out to capture a girl. At the time of her capture, the girl would be dedicated to Morning Start and then turned over to the keeper of the Morning Star bundle upon their return to the village.

In the village, the captive would be treated with respect, but kept isolated from the rest of the camp. As the time for the five-day ritual approached, the captive would be ritually cleansed. The keeper of the Morning Star bundle would then sing a series of songs during which the captive would be symbolically transformed from a human form to a celestial form. With this, the girl now became the ritual representative of Morning Star: she was not viewed as impersonating Morning Start, but rather she was viewed as the earthly embodiment of Morning Star.

On the last day of the ceremony, the men and boys from the village would take the captive outside of the village to a place where they had erected a scaffold. This scaffold represented Evening Star’s garden in the west, the source of all animal and plant life.

The captive would be placed on the scaffold and her clothing removed. When the morning star appeared, two men would approach her from the east and touch her lightly with torches. Four other men would then touch her with war clubs. The warrior who had captured her with then come forward with a sacred bow and shoot her through the heart with a sacred arrow. At the same time, another warrior would strike on the head with the war club from the Morning Star bundle.

The elder supervising the ceremony would then cut open her breast with a stone knife. He would smear his face with her blood. The warrior who had captured her would catch some of her blood on dried meat.

All of the men and boys would then shoot arrows into her body, circle the scaffold four times, and return to the camp.

In 1816, Pawnee leader Petalesharo rescued a Comanche girl from the Morning Star Ceremony, stating that the ritual should be abolished. He offered himself in her place and when the other Pawnee hesitated in killing him, he untied the girl, placed her on a horse, and led her to safety.

Petalsharo, the son of Chief Lachelesharo (Old Knife), was a respected warrior of about 30 years of age at this time. Carl Waldman, in his book Who Was Who in Native American History, writes:

“He won the respect of his people for confronting the powerful class of priests, and, on succeeding his father, he proved influential among many of the Pawnee bands.”

In 1833, the Pawnee prepared to sacrifice a Cheyenne woman captive in their Morning Star Ceremony. Chief Big Ax called a council of chiefs and leading men and asked them to abandon the plan. While the people in the village were hostile to the idea of letting the captive go, they brought the woman to Big Ax’s lodge. The American Indian agent and five others attempted to take the captive from the village. They were blocked by Soldier Chief and the woman was shot with an arrow. The Pawnee warriors then took the dying woman out onto the prairie and carried out the sacrifice.

With increasing opposition to the Morning Star Ceremony from both the American government and some of the Pawnee leaders, the Pawnee held their last known Morning Star Ceremony in 1838. At this time, they ritually sacrificed Haxti, a young Oglala woman.

Frank White: Pawnee Prophet

( – promoted by navajo)

One of the visitors at an 1891 Comanche Ghost Dance in Oklahoma was Frank White. He sat on the north side of the dance area and ate a lot of peyote. When the Comanche asked him who he was, he said that he was Pawnee. Following the Comanche Ghost Dance, he attended a Ghost Dance among the Wichita. There he once again ate peyote, he watched the dance, and then he joined it.

While dancing, Frank White went into a trance where he saw the stream, the tree, the Messiah, and the village of the people. He saw the people dance, and in his trance he joined them and from them he learned Ghost Dance songs in Pawnee. The English words to the first song he learned are:

The place whence you come,

Now I am longing for.

The place whence you come,

Now I am ever mindful of.

When he woke from the trance he told the people what he had seen. In this way, Frank White became a prophet and the people felt that he had the same power as Sitting Bull, the Arapaho Ghost Dance leader.  

When he returned home to the Pawnee he began to teach the doctrine and the songs of the Ghost Dance to the southern bands. He told the people:

“The kingdom is coming soon now, so the people must prepare. This that I have is called ghost dancing. You must stop working because when the kingdom comes you won’t take plows or things like that along. That’s not ours.”

The version of the Ghost Dance that Frank White gave to the Pawnees was not the same one Sitting Bull had given to the Caddos. In addition, the dance had a different focus than Ghost Dance advocated by the Paiute prophet Wovoka.

While White saw himself as a prophet as a new religious movement, he was also respectful of Pawnee culture. He met with the elders and discussed his vision. The elders accepted his vision and were satisfied with him in the role of Ghost Dance prophet.

Frank White, who was of the Kitkahaxki band, began holding regular Ghost Dances and members of the Skiri band were attending. At first, the songs included Arapaho and Wichita songs as well as the Pawnee songs he had learned in his trance. During the dances, people would have visions which explained other ceremonies which they should be doing. In this way, the Ghost Dance began to grow among the Pawnee.

The Ghost Dance doctrine among the Pawnee held that the dead could communicate with the living through the visions brought about during the dance. In addition to face painting, the Pawnee Ghost Dance included the use of feathers as hair ornaments. In the trance visions, people usually found themselves associated with either the eagle or the crow and thereafter they wore feathers to symbolize this vision.

At the beginning of each dance a woman would be chosen to bless the dance grounds. She would be seated at the door of White’s tipi with her face painted. For this one day she was holy. At the end of each day of dancing, the dancers moved to the center of the circle and then back out slowly shaking their blankets and shawls. In this way they cast off the burdens of the day

In 1892 the government realized that the Pawnee were doing the Ghost Dance and set out to stop it. The Indian agency clerk met with Frank White and told him that he was an impostor and that he was to leave the reservation and never return.  The following morning, over 200 Pawnee, painted with Ghost Dance colors, surrounded the agency and demanded a council. The agent told them that they were following a false Messiah and that the Ghost Dance would not be tolerated. Following the meeting, the Pawnee continued to gather in secret in order to Ghost Dance.

Fearing that the Ghost Dance would interfere with the government’s plan to break up the reservations into allotments, Frank White was arrested remanded to jail. The Pawnee decided to fight to get their prophet back and a party of armed warriors gathered at the railroad station to take him from the marshal. However, the agent sent a telegram and when the train arrived it was filled with soldiers. The Pawnee decide that there were too many soldiers and so the marshal left with White.

While Frank White was away, many Pawnee were persuaded to choose allotments. In dividing up their land, and selling a good part of it, the Pawnee were doing something which was opposed to the faith and doctrine of the Ghost Dance.

After several days in jail a writ of habeas corpus was issued. The judge gave White a lecture on the dangers of indulging in the Ghost Dance. He was then released and returned to the reservation.

While Frank White was in jail, William Hunt emerged as a new Ghost Dance leader. Hunt drastically altered the Ghost Dance.  Rather than dancing, Hunt offered a doctrine that included the laying on of hands. White was angered by the new development and demanded that Hunt be arrested and deported for practicing the Ghost Dance. The agent ignored the demand feeling that it was to his advantage to let the Ghost Dance leaders quarrel among themselves.

Among the Pawnee, Frank White was considered to be the sole authentic prophet of the Ghost Dance and its doctrine. Those who had visions reported them to him. White granted permission to use the vision, to wear feathers, to paint the face, and to put on a dance. For conferring these rights, White was usually given gifts.

Frank White did not live up to the ideals of conduct for a spiritual leader among the Pawnee.  He used peyote – which the Pawnee felt made him wise – but he drank whiskey at the same time. According to one of his contemporaries:

“Whiskey and peyote do not mix, they cannot go together. That’s what killed him.”

He died in 1893, but the Ghost Dance that he brought to the Pawnee continued to live.